Sunday, October 30, 2011

M for Muse...

Got this excellent shot of M, probably my best portrait shot to date and certainly the slowest shot without tripod that I have taken.  Yes, this is a half second exposure shot with bare hands, no tripod, no monopod, no support of any sort for the camera!  First the shot and then the story behind the shot...

The shot...

Lens: Canon IS 18-55 IS
Aperture: f/4.5
Shutter: 1/2 (yes!)
ISO: 800
Focal length: 35 mm
Flash: No
Tripod: NO!
Post processing: None

Now the story...

The setting
Unlike other years, spent this diwali in Mumbai.  On a whim, decided to head to Nariman Point on the last day of diwali to enjoy what we expected would be a spectacular display of fireworks all over the Queen's Necklace.  We arrived a tad too early and spent the first couple of hours soaking in the cool sea breeze and panoramic views of the Queen's Necklace, lighted up in all its festive finery.  A brightly lit up Saifee Hospital was the shining pendant to the glittering necklace.  Spent time munching on the famous Mumbai sandwiches and clicking shots of Nariman Point and the fireworks around.  The white glow of the sparklers and flower pots provided just the necessary soft lighting with the dark sea as the background for the perfect portrait.  The gentle breeze and randomly streaking rockets threatened to spoil the shot, but then, what's life without a little excitement!

The muse
The ever willing M ofcourse!  Since I didn't want a 'posed' look, just told her not to make any sudden movements, make only slow movements and that too in installments, so that I would get enough window to shoot a slow portrait.  M obliged, though at some discomfort, given how active and restless as she is!  Goofed up the first one by not setting the monochrome mode, but got it right in the second one!

The shot
Though I never expected it to turn out half as good, the result surprised me.  There were several challenges to start with.  The first problem was the light - it was nearing nine in the evening and there was a lot of stray light all over the place: from sparklers, rockets, blazing flower pots, headlights of passing vehicles and even from the streetlights.  Thankfully, managed a moment when all these had taken a break!  Next was the background.  Though we were at the far end of Nariman Point, just across from NCPA, the glittering lights of the curve of the Queen's Necklace threatened to play spoilsport.  Managed to find a spot with M seated on the seawall and me standing on the bench a level below, to get the right angle and have any afterglow of the Queen's Necklace below the range of the lens.  Luck played a large part, in not sending any stray rockets to the background.  The third and the biggest problem was the shutter speed.  Earlier shots in aperture priority resulted in 5 - 10 second exposures, which are impossible without a tripod and certainly a disaster as far as portraits are concerned.  Had to set a relatively high ISO (against my liking), at 800, beyond which I  believe the noise ruins photographs, particularly those with stark contrasts and dark backgrounds.  Set the aperture at 4.5 - alas I don't have a high speed lens and this is the widest I can open up to at even a 35 mm focus and shooting mode to Manual, to prevent the shutter from going off to long exposures.  Set the white balance to auto and shutter speed to 1/2 second.  I thought I was all set, but given the low light, AF failed to lock in and kept hunting.  Had to set the focus to Manual and had trouble getting an exact focus (the 18-55 is not the best of lenses for MF - I'd rather do that with a rangefinder, but the likes of Leica are currently  out of my budget range!).  That explains the soft focus, which actually is good for portraits!  The glow from the sparklers provided sufficient soft lighting and finally hit the shutter release.  Was lucky enough that my hands stayed steady for just the required moments and luckier further that the shot turned out decent enough...

If you liked the result, do post your comments.  If you didn't, I'd like to hear more about how the shot can be improved, so do post comments!

Mumbai road trip

For a change, decided NOT to go on a long road trip on a long weekend. Instead, we decided to explore places in Mumbai. And so, on a wet saturday morning, M and I set off, to look up spots in South Mumbai. The first stop was the Church of St John the Evangelist, popularly known as Afghan Church.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Colaba, close to Navy Nagar, Afghan Church is a Presbyterian Church built to commemorate the dead of the 1838 Afghan War. The imposing spire, rising to a height of 60 mts that was once visible to ships docking in the harbour, is now dwar

fed by high rises all round. Surprisingly, the church itself is in a derelict state, opening only for mass on sunday mornings. Since we went on a saturday, the church was sadly, closed to visitors. There wasn't even a caretaker to be found. The precincts were immacu

lately kept, and the facade was imposing. Since the main entrance was locked, we missed seeing the famed stained glass windows - apparently the largest in India. Will come back on a sunday morning post monsoon and post pics. Pic courtesy here: googlemaps/panoromio
From the Afghan Church, we proceeded to Kala Ghoda, to the Jehangir Art Gallery. There were several solo exhibitions on, mostly abstract paintings. Also on display were sculptures by an artist who works with mixed media: fibreglass, brass and metals, clay etc., I am sure there are people that appreciate modern art, but sadly we were not those. Hence a quick tour and exit, to Samovar Cafe.
Samovar is a quaint cafe attached to the Art Gallery, immortalised in the Basu Chatterjee movie Chhoti si baat, starring Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Ashok Kumar (as the unforgettable Col. Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh) and Asrani. An open corridor running down an entire length of the gallery building is cloistered and converted into a narrow cafe, with rows of chairs on either side of the aisle. Since it was early noon, there wasnt much crowd save for a solitary foreign tourist. Sadly, the menu did not feature chicken-a-la-poos, though it did list kheema paratha and dahi vada. The menu had several delights for the maansaahaari, such as mutton samosa, chicken patty etc., We settled for the spicy cheese-veg roll, veg sandwich and the mango lassi. The staff were extremely courteous, efficient and quick, though on a lazy sunday morning, I'd rather they were slow! The ambience was enhanced by the background music - a collection of fusion music titled Chitra, by Venus. The staff even obliged us by getting us the CD cover when we enquired about the album!
From Cafe Samovar, we headed to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly The Prince of Wales Museum (strangely, an internet search turns up a large number of hits for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sastu Sangrahalaya!) Surprisingly, the museum attracts a large number of visitors, from within and outside Mumbai. The visit began on a high note, munching on slices of kandmool - a juicy tuber supposed to be good for digestion.
The museum authorities permit use of a camera, without flash ofcourse, on payment of a small fee. Unfortunately, we had not carried the camera, hence, no interesting images from the visit. The museum building has an imposing facade: set in the Indo-Saracenic style, the structure draws from Islamic and Deccan styles.  The structure itself would be an object of study for architecture enthusiasts.
The teeming crowds actually surprised us - who would expect Mumbaites to turn up at a museum on a sunday, rather than some mall!  Anyways, it turned out that most of the visitors were tourists from other cities - Chennai, Kerala, AP, Rajasthan, UP etc., The excitement of the crowds was palpable!
Interestingly, a significant part of the collection is donated by Sir Ratan Tata (son of Jamsetji Tata), his wife Lady Navajbai Tata and brother Sir Dorab Tata.  Many artefacts donated by the family are priceless: jade artefacts, antique furniture, jewelry, sculptures - there's something from the family in every section of the museum.  In fact, it is surprising that the museum was originally called The Prince of Wales Museum and not The Sir Ratan Tata Museum!  Yet another example of the Tata family's selflessness in  service of the greater public good.
The audio guides available for Rs 100 give a pretty useful introduction, though we found the explanations for the sculpture section (dominated by mythological themes) fairly basic.  The central hall, formed by the cavernous dome, is awe inspiring.  The dome itself is inspired by the Gol Gumbaz of Bijapur - probably the largest free standing dome in the world.  The ground floor has an eclectic collection of jade figurines, ivory sculptures, jewelry and an entire section devoted to ancient sculptures, that easily took most of our attention and time.

The sculpture section
This houses sculptures from various Indian temple sites as ancient as  200 BC to as recent as 1600 AD.  For the mythologically and historically inclined, like us, this is a treasure trove.  What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up in variety.  Spending more than an hour browsing the collection, we made a few startling observations.  For instance, most of the scupltures of the feminine, be it goddesses or dwarpalikas, upto almost the 15th century, are portrayed with a yagnopaveetam, the sacred thread.  Though it is a known fact that the scriptures nowhere prohibit women from chanting the Gayatri or undergoing the thread ceremony, the recentness of the depiction was surprising.  A couple of artefacts were wrongly labelled and we did have a good mind to speak to the curataor, but by the time were done with the exhibits, exhaustion overtook us and forgot about it.  One of the exhibits that caught our attention was a life size Durga made entirely of dried plantain bark.  The featuring and attention to detail was spell binding.
The central hall houses several smaller artefacts and trinkets, of which the jade collection was the best.  Carved jade cups so delicate that they are translucent, jade jewelry, carved jade boxes and keepsakes... one can spend the rest of the day gazing at these.  There are carvings of ivory and wood, mostly Goan, at this level too, but none can match the breathtaking beauty of the jade word.

The first floor several sections - an extensive collection of Indian miniature paintings, one of the largest collections of Indian coins, and an assortment of arms and armour, various wooden and ivory artefacts.
The collection of miniature paintings is very extensive and showcases the different styles prevalent in various regions of the country.  We quickly moved to the coins section.  The history of coinage is traced with specimen from each phase.  There are coins from the pre-Mauryan period, through the various dynasties across India and right up to the 'Company' issued coins of the 18th and 19th centuries.  We were already running short on time and hence couldn't spend enough time here - probably another visit dedicated just to this section.
Exquisitely carved wooden and ivory furniture are placed all over the first level.  Most of these feature delicate filigree work as well as inlay work in metal and semi-precious stones.  Most are donated by the Sir Ratan Tata family.
The section on European and contemporary art was closed for renovation and was sadly, out of bounds.
It was nearing closing time and we decided to make a dash of the natural history section.  Though it was saddening to see magnificent animals killed and stuffed for display, two specimen caught our attention.  The first was an Indian rhino, in all its magnificent hulk, standing five feet tall toe to shoulder: never imagined that a rhino could be this huge.  The second was a bison that M found immensely handsome and dashing - I had to agree.  Though only a display, the bison had the calm commanding look that women swoon for, helped in no small measure by the huge bulk of atleast six foot tall.
It was now officially closing time and the guards started herding the laggards out.  We made a quick stop at the museum bookstore and picked up a couple of books on the Indus Valley civilization and ancient Indian coinage.

It was almost six in the evening and we were ravenous, the small Samovar lunch long since digested.  Headed to Delhi Durbar for a hearty meal, which turned to be not a great experience.  Un-responsive staff, slow service, dysfunctional AC were only a few of the complaints.  A quick repast later, we headed back home.  Surely, there is more to Mumbai than just her malls and shopping high streets....

Friday, October 28, 2011

Places to eat

This one is not about fine dining - its about fantastic dining, about places that offer fabulous food in an all value no frills package, dug out from the memories of singleton days.

Crystal - Chowpatty
Topping the list is Crystal - an irani style vegetarian only punjabi restaurant on Chowpatty, on the corner after Wilson College, if you are driving towards Nariman Point. A typical blink-and-you-miss joint, the easiest way to find the place is to simply look for the hordes of office goers and college kids waiting their turn outside the door at lunchtime. Its not uncommon to find investment bankers rub shoulders with college students on adjacent tables. This place is for food and food alone - if you are looking for ambience, even traces of it, this place is not for you. The interiors of the place are dimly lit and a makeshift mezzanine floor gives the restaurant a claustrophobic feel. The chairs are tacky plastic and you will find a bottle of Kissan ketchup and mixed fruit jam in a cupboard above the cashier's desk. The waiters here are courteous and will help you with choosing the dishes if you are a newcomer.
Their aam ras - available during the mango season - is to die for. So is the kheer, which should be had chilled. For the main course, choose from the spread of rotis - they are all fabulous, but if you are particular, go for the aloo paratha and butter roti. Black dal and aloo gobi make for excellent accompaniments. Topping the list is rajma, which is a work of art. A courteous request and the waiter will fetch you a nariyal pani from the vendor next door. A sumptuous meal for two for about Rs 200 - it can't get better than that!

Stadium Restaurant
This is another true irani type restaurant near Churchgate, across the road from Gaylord, in the WIAA building, next to the Vodafone outlet. High ceilinged with irani style wooden chairs and tables, the place also boasts of an internet browsing centre, located above the kitchen! A dour faced cashier oversees several waiters scurrying around, taking orders and serving dishes. The place has some of the best biriyanis available - I will vouch for the vegetarian biriyani and the egg biriyani and my non-veg friends from as far away as Bangalore make it a point to visit this place for the mutton biriyani. The curries are finger lickin' good too - have the egg curry or mutton curry with chapatis. The chapatis are large and five should be good for someone with a voracious appetite. Top off the meal with chai - brewed in true Irani style. Be sure to ask for the regular chai, which is served in cracked porcelain cups and not the special chai, which is served in fancy glass cups, but not as good. A meal for two costs about Rs 150.  If you are in the mood, try their 'special dessert' - a serving of custard as well!

This for a change, is not an irani restaurant!  It is a malayali restaurant, tucked in a bylane off DN Road, behind the Citibank building.  A narrow staircase leads to the restaurant on the first floor, with an exclusive 'family' section with A/C as well!  Once you squeeze in behind the tables, the waiters, most of them malayali of course, will toss the menu on the table.  If you do not know what to order, you'd better head there for lunch and ask for the thali.  The thali is veg, but the restaurant serves delectable mallu non-veg dishes too.  The thali, our all time favourite, starts with the pineapple chutney, followed by kachumber, paruppu, vegetables in the south indian style, aviyal, poriyal, red rice (they serve white rice on request, but who'd miss a helping of red rice!), curries, sambhar, rasam, curd, chillies pickled in curd and fried, payasam etc.,  For a truly authentic mallu lunch experience, don't miss this.  And a word of advice - skip breakfast if you want to do justice to the lunch!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

New Toy - Samsung Wave II

The wife always wins!  And so it was this time too.  A feeble defence in favour of extending the retirement life of the trusty Nokia E63 were quickly overcome and the diktat to immediately identify a replacement was issued.
Turns out picking a mobile is no longer an 'I went, I saw, I bought' task.  At the pinnacle of the pecking order rules the very desirable iPhone 4S that sold some 4 mn pieces in the weekend after Steve Jobs' passing away.  Several thousand other models follow down the hierarchy, with a lowly 1000 Rs mobile boasting more features than the one I used not less than a couple of years ago.
Listing out the features that I wanted in a mobile didn't help either: basic features such as ability to make calls, sms, address book and set an alarm and 'advanced' features such as conferencing ability and good speaker phone are available even in ones that are certainly not considered piece de' resistance.
In order to narrow down the choices, decided to add multi-touch screen, robust media player and presence of a qwerty keypad.  With a triumphant smile, I put these requirements to the salesman, expecting him to dish out exactly what I needed.  A few quick questions followed that had me back at square one:
"Android or Symbian or Windows?"
"Looking for great app experience or multi-media experience?"
"LCD or amoLED?"
"Browser preference?"
"Single camera or dual camera?"
That's when I decided to get professional help and do some serious research.  Typed "best smartphone for Rs x" in the Google searchbar and did a recce at an electronics store.  Had to turn to my faithful Samsung again - apparently I am some sort of Samsung loyalist.  Shortlisted Galaxy Ace and Wave II.  Online reviews and the helpful salesman recommended Galaxy Ace for a great app experience and Wave II for a great multimedia experience.  Having rarely used a mobile for much beyond the basic features, opted for the Wave II.
The ongoing festive season with its share of freebies and discounts was an added bonus.  Here's a download on the first few days usage.
What came in the box: the phone, charger, USB cable, headphones, software CD and user manual, pouch.
What didn't come in the box: scratchguard, memory card (added an 8 GB to start with).
The brushed metallic black exterior gives a classy look and feel to the handset.  This also prevents the surface from being a fingerprint magnet.  Though a cm longer than the E63 and almost as broad and thick(er?) (12.4 cm x 6.0 cm x 1.2 cm), it didn't take much time getting used to.
Though tiny, the external buttons (volume jog, camera, screen lock) are well raised and provide excellent tactile feedback.  A lot of thought seems to have gone into the design of this phone: for instance, the combined charging and micro-USB port are protected by a plastic slide-out cover, not the rubber covers that tend to tear soon.  Another one: place the phone face down and it automatically goes into a silent mode!  It's small things like this that make the phone extremely practical.
The phone itself is a nifty package: has a great 'Super Clear LCD' 9.25 cm touchscreen with a brilliant 480 x 800 display.  Colour reproduction is crisp and the contrasts are great.  The multi-touch touchscreen is a joy to use.
Voice quality is clear and crisp.
Text input with the 'trace and type' function is a boon for hardcore physical qwerty users with clunky fingers, like me.  I expect to quickly surpass my qwerty keypad typing speeds on the trace and type.
Internal memory of 2 GB plus expandable card slot of 32 GB can handle any and all stuff that my 2 year old laptop does.  Combine that with great battery life (400 min talk time and 555 hrs standby on 3G), multiple video format support including divx and a great pair of in-ear earphones means those early-morning-late-evening flights no longer have to be spent fidgeting and watching 'Karthik calling Karthik' five times a week.
The 5 megapixel camera was another surprise package.  In addition to auto focus and image stabilisation, it has adjustable ISO settings (50 to 800), white balance, 15 scene modes and 6 shooting modes.  Now that's giving some competition to my point and shoot!
Well, that's about how much I have used the phone the last couple of days - am sure it's gonna be great.